Sunday, July 18, 2004

On political theatre and politics as theatre

There's a interesting piece today by The Observer's Nick Cohen: No news is bad news: "Not even a war or a government in turmoil can get the new Generation X engaged in current affairs". He first points to the kind of attention and political theatre that Britain experience this week, first with the Butler report on the intelligence failings and 'sexing up' of a dubious case for war in Iraq and in the two subsequent by-elections in which Blair's Labour party suffered serious, but not fatal setbacks. Tony Blair has been under serious political pressure for cozying up with Bush and dragging his country into an unpopular war with the disastrous unraveling we are now seeing. Cohen though is more interested in what this says about the health of democracy in his country. He's almost annoyed with the electorate.

On Thursday, the public passed its verdict in the Birmingham Hodge Hill and Leicester South by-elections. The results were sensational. They raised the stark and unavoidable question: What's the matter with the public? Why is it so willfully dumb?

In Leicester the turnout was 41 per cent. The free citizens of Hodge Hill bettered that: only 37 per cent bothered to vote. In the past, a convincing case has been made that in an age when capitalism is triumphant and all the main parties agree on the need to deregulate and privatise, there was little point in voting, particularly when Tony Blair was going to win every election going anyway. The apathy bred by the consensus of the 1990s was either terrible, because it hollowed out democracy, or marvelous, because it meant people were happy and didn't feel the need to waste their time on ideological differences.

Neither variant of the argument works today. The Iraq war should have blasted apathy away. It split the country down the middle and strained families and friendships. If Blair had lost both seats to the Liberal Democrats, the pressure on him to go would have increased. If he had won both, he would have been safe. Voting might have changed something. Yet presented with the findings of an official inquiry by a diligent media on the eve of the election, three-fifths of voters in Leicester and two-thirds of voters in Birmingham were too idle to walk a few hundred yards to a polling station and pick up a pencil.

Journalists blame politicians for cynicism and politicians blame journalists. They can't blame the public because in market democracies the public is either the sovereign people who confer political legitimacy on governments or the sovereign consumer who confer economic legitimacy on corporations. Yet to anyone who cares about rational debate, the evidence is overwhelming that market democracies are eating themselves. You can have modern capitalism or you can have modern democracy but it is becoming ever more difficult to have both.
After the disastrous turnout in the 2001 election, Richard Sambrook, the director of BBC news, noticed that something odd was happening to his audience. The young have always been more concerned with sex and drugs and rock and roll than the state of the world. The conventional wisdom was that when they settled down and had children they would want to know about education policy and the state of the economy, they would want the news. But, said Sambrook, the old rule that people would begin to care about current affairs in their late 20s no longer held. The young were following the path beaten by the baby-boomers and staying infantilised into middle age....

The worship of the great gods of choice and deregulation was undermining the necessary myth of democracy that the electorate wants to be equipped to pass judgment on the great issues of the day...

There's a comforting idea that the public is getting its news elsewhere - from the internet or the 24-hour channels. A minority may be, but the theory that people need a fixed amount of news a day, like so many calories or litres of water, doesn't stand-up. When Hollyoaks ends and Channel 4 news begins at 7pm, Channel 4's share of the young audiences collapses. BBC1's hour of national and local news comes to an end at the same time, and the BBC's audience share bounces up. The young understand the deregulated, digital world and know how to find the thousands of paths which take the audience away from news. It's now depressingly clear that news bulletins and documentaries only reached mass audiences in the past because there wasn't much else for the masses to watch.

For the public-service BBC and the broadsheet press, the only honourable way out for the shrinking number of journalists whose employment can be justified is to become proudly elitist; to offer serious news to the minority who want it and hope that their deliberations will trickle down to wider society. (Don't panic, there isn't a hope in hell of this happening.)

As for British democracy, no one knows what to do. If the most controversial war of modern times can't persuade a majority to vote, what can?
Cohen is a serious journalist, ostensibly writing in one of the most vibrant, competitive and sophisticated media markets in the world. The landscape of the print press is far more vital in the UK than the States (english broadsheets are national newspapers and they face ferocious competition from the tabloid press unlike in the US). He writes intelligent pieces for a serious audience, but he despairs of the political engagemement of the wider populace. Unfortunately this comes with the territory of modern-day market democracies, it is good to look at modern-day western politics as theatre, informed by the rough-and-tumble marketplace of mass entertainment and communications. That's what Ronald Reagan political success epitomized, what Karl Rove understands and applied rather successfully in the packaging of Dubya after 9/11 - although the cold reality of Iraq has intruded and the scripts now need to be retooled. The lingua franca of the political debate is informed by drama. This is an argument for the cinematic.

Tina Brown covers much the same territory in the Washington Post Looking for an Angel to Outfox Murdoch in which she's looking for a media-savvy Soros as it were.
Within hours of the report's release, the headline on London's Evening Standard was an inflammatory screamer: "Whitewash 2." Brits across the board are so angry at being conned into war that how big a liar and/or manipulator you deem Tony Blair just depends on what paper you read.

Blair-bashing in London is almost more exhausting than Bush-bashing in New York because the Tories provide no credible political opposition. The opposition is the press. Dealing with its daily attacks and distortions for eight years while maintaining his buoyant resolve has only toughened the prime minister and scored him points with the public. It hones him for the gladiatorial sessions of Question Time in the House of Commons, an ordeal of direct accountability inconceivable for a U.S. president.

Unlike Bush, Blair is used to living without a partisan media comfort zone. In Britain, it's a smackdown across party lines, prompted more by competition and mischief than ideology. The papers that supported Blair on the Iraq war trash him about the European Union and vice versa. With the tabloids, it doesn't matter if the facts don't fit the argument. When he won three big diplomatic victories over the French and German federalists in the enlarged European Union -- keeping Britain's control of its own taxation, foreign policy and defense, exactly as he had vowed to do -- Blair came home to headlines about his miserable sellouts. "What about our rights, Tony?" jeered the front page of the relentlessly hostile Daily Mail.

That's why if you're a Brit like me it's hard to get too riled up about Robert Greenwald's new documentary, "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism,"... Like all good agitprop, "Outfoxed" exists more to confirm dark hunches than to change minds. It's unlikely, after all, that passionate devotees of Bill O'Reilly are trawling West Side cocktail parties and gate-crashing MoveOn.org screening events looking to have their minds changed. But this is the year when it's not enough to vote, you have to vote with your veins popping and your eyes bulging. Screeching to the choir is all the rage.

What the movie ignores is the real reason Fox has remained so popular: It's not the politics. It's the flair, stupid. It's the same with Murdoch's racy tab, the New York Post, which is read like a ransom note every morning by all the people who most deplore its point of view. In the U.K., the Daily Mail, which isn't owned by Murdoch, is scarily powerful not because of its parochial, jingoistic, Little England judgments but because of the flawless timing of its malice, the instinctive brilliance with which it identifies and exploits the next national paranoia or distraction. Whether it's the "rising tide" of British pedophilia (statistically on the decline) or the right moment to put the boot to soccer god David Beckham, the Daily Mail is all over it. The difference is that there are plenty of other raucous, mainstream voices to hit back.

The problem with Fox News, therefore, is not Fox News. It's the others. It's that Roger Ailes's brilliant belligerence and formidable TV skills are not matched enough with reportorial testosterone and creativity elsewhere. The concentration of media power among a handful of behemoths makes the mainstream scared and driven by the bottom line. There is a retreat in newspapers as much as in TV from investigative reporting and foreign coverage into craven cost-cutting, Foxian imitation, "lifestyle" journalism or pallid, self-correcting "balanced" coverage that treats a genuine scandal like the Senate intelligence revelations as just another story of the day.

Unsatisfied consumers, browbeaten by the bromide that the U.S. media are too liberal, have to seek emotional relief in the distortions of "Fahrenheit 9/11." But isn't there a more creditable challenger than Michael Moore?

Wanted: A new entrepreneurial media wild man, with deep pockets and real curiosity, who's turned on as much by rigorous reporting as access to power.

Big media need someone with integrity, passion and resolve who believes that hard news and in-depth foreign coverage can be the sexiest kind of reality show and knows how to sell it to a famished audience with as much dogged showmanship as Roger Ailes sells Fox News.


Tina Brown does capture the sense that flair, a nose for 'showmanship', and sensitivity to the dramatic is a necessary component in the nexus of politics and journalism. Those who hated her tenure at the New Yorker and gloated at the failures of Talk magazine on the grounds of 'being too showy or tabloid' missed this. At her prime, she was very closely attuned to the cultural context she lived in.

I do believe though that one can still be substantive even when operating under this framework; I'd point to Clinton, as politician of substance, who clearly understood and internalized this notion. Indeed that's what I look for in all politicians: awareness of the territory they tread on and 'authenticity' in the zeitgeist. I think Kerry is just beginning to grapple with this question of framing authenticity.

It is simple-minded to ask 'why is the public so dumb?' like Cohen does. Bush and Blair's current difficulties argue otherwise. Stirling Newbury explains this very well in "Why Bush Seemed Popular (And Why He Isn't Now)" and especially here in Fin de Regime. Being an effective operator in these market democracies certainly entails an affinity with Hollywood, or let's stretch it, Hip Hop, and whatever belies the latest consumer trends. Cohen should frame his journalistic advocacy in a cinematic fashion, maybe even a la Michael Moore. But consonance with the theatre of our times is just one weapon among many - albeit a very effective weapon. First this:
The Post-Modern illusion is.. that cultural bombardment is responsible for everything - sexuality, anorexia, voting patterns and so on. And the chattering classes - bloggers included - spend endless time arguing over what the effect of every little media image and idea is.

We should save some of our time, because gross economics is far more determinate of public mood than pictures. The pictures we see on television don't create the mood, they resonate with it. The two push on each other, but the raw numbers tell the story, often better than the pictures do. Or rather, a picture of the underlying truth is worth a million media images.

And then this:
The Curve returns as the New York Times has featured, on successive days curved origami and now the tear drop design of cars. The curve is of course organic, but also a controlled sense of organic. And the curve is the antithesis of the blocky "Decade of Stupid" look which swept America in 2002, when it seemed that plowing ahead was the solution to all of our problems.

It isn't clear that this retro-30's/50's look and idea is going win out, but it is on the roads - the curved look heralded by the PT Cruiser and the Beetle has gotten a slight update with a sharp angle between top and sides that gives cars an edged, dangerous "stealth" look that gives the curve sharklike teeth.

Yes, it's the end of an era, with the last of 1990's grunge saying good-bye, in television shows, in cars. In fashion trends the falling out of clothes look is now competing with a retro-sophisticated look, and which one wins will tell us a great deal of how we feel about the future. The congruence between what people feel, and the solutions they seek, is very close. The hemline rises and falls with the dollar, and the lowered hemlines and return to curves tell us that America wants a smarter, more restrained approach.

But we don't know what it means yet.

But it is the end of the Regime. As the Grinches in Congress try to shove a 120 Billion dollar Corporate Christmas tree back up the Chimney - loaded with big breaks for their backers, and smaller bribes for farmers and some republican states, to oil its way through - it is clear they know that this is their last chance to get on the gravy train. That next year brings retrenchment.

And retrenchment is what is the more restrained look says. If they are making Gwen Steffani look like a 1930's sophisticate, there is a trend in the offing.

But what does this mean for our politics. I will assert that the mood of the country is something that the elites watch and want to harvest - but they harvest and sow, they do not create it. Thus if one goes into the halls of power, the topic is an obsession with what is going on "out there", where their fortunes are made, as they jockey for the chance to put ideas, products, politicians before the public.

When the mood changes one can see it by the failure of certain products. The angular ugly of the Honda Element and the Pontiac Aztec - with the boom of the Toyota Prius, which has a one year waiting list at MSRP - shows the change. America is willing to be less prodigal, but is this "mood" enough. Only if a politician can make an emotional appeal to it, and show the people who hold this mood that it is "authentic" that it can work.

The mood of belligerent carbonated hostility which Bush appealed to has been shown to be "inauthentic" in that it cannot be sustained. It doesn't "work". The more humble "restrained" formula he puts forward doesn't work either, since there is no way that the Bushconomy can pay the debt service on a short term paper financed national debt that is ballooning by half a trillion a year - particularly with the baby boom about to retire.

Thus there is, in the sophistication, the smoothness, tainted with a knife edge that one can see in the paper folds, the cars - a possibility of the style that will become political and socially centered, and will produce the aesthetic sense of government.

And don't under-estimate that aesthetic sense: people choose as much by what feels right, by the aesthetic power of the idea or person, as much by any calculation. As many elite Go players will tell you, the cultivation of the aesthetic sense of where to put the next stone is the great sign of mastery of that most complex of simple games.

It is the fin de la regime, because we can no longer stand the glowering blues and brutish thug look that men were poured into in their suits, and the "big man's main slut" look that dominates the red carpet is beginning to look like a fashion malfunction...
In this vein, it is not a political commentator or journalist who will have the definitive word on this phenomenon. I'll point to Gil Scot-Heron in "B"-Movie, one of my favourite pieces of jazz-funk agitprop commenting apropos Ronald Reagan's rise in 1980. Like the song, it's an mp3, says "we're all just living in a movie". A video of a live performance is available.
Well, the first thing I want to say is. "Mandate my ass!"

Because it seems as though we've been convinced that 26% of the registered voters, not even 26% of the American people, but 26% of the registered voters form a mandate - or a landslide. 21% voted for Skippy and 3, 4% voted for somebody else who might have been running.

But, oh yeah, I remember. In this year that we have now declared the year from Shogun to Reagan, I remember what I said about Raygun. Meant it. Acted like an actor. Hollyweird. Acted like a liberal. Acted like General Franco when he acted like governor of California, then he acted like a republican. Then he acted like somebody was going to vote for him for president. And now we act like 26% of the registered voters is actually a mandate. We're all actors in this I suppose.

What has happened is that in the last 20 years, America has changed from a producer to a consumer. And all consumers know that when the producer names the tune. The consumer has got to dance. That's the way it is. We used to be a producer - very inflexible at that, and now we are consumers and, finding it difficult to understand. Natural resources and minerals will change your world. The Arabs used to be in the 3rd World. They have bought the 2nd World and put a firm down payment on the 1st one. Controlling your resources we'll control your world. This country has been surprised by the way the world looks now. They don't know if they want to be Matt Dillon or Bob Dylan. They don't know if they want to be diplomats or continue the same policy - of nuclear nightmare diplomacy. John Foster Dulles ain't nothing but the name of an airport now.

The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia. They want to go back as far as they can - even if it's only as far as last week. Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards. And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment. The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse - or the man who always came to save America at the last moment - someone always came to save America at the last moment - especially in "B" movies. And when America found itself having a hard time facing the future, they looked for people like John Wayne. But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan - and it has placed us in a situation that we can only look at - like a "B" movie.

Come with us back to those inglorious days when heroes weren't zeros. Before fair was square. When the cavalry came straight away and all-American men were like Hemingway to the days of the wondrous "B" movie. The producer underwritten by all the millionaires necessary will be Casper "The Defensive" Weinberger - no more animated choice is available. The director will be Attila the Haig, running around frantically declaring himself in control and in charge. The ultimate realization of the inmates taking over at the asylum. The screenplay will be adapted from the book called "Voodoo Economics" by George "Papa Doc" Bush. Music by the "Village People" the very military "Macho Man."

"Company!!!"
"Macho, macho man!"
" Two-three-four."
" He likes to be - well, you get the point."
"Huuut! Your left! Your left! Your left. Right, left, right, left, right.!"

A theme song for saber-rallying and selling wars door-to-door. Remember, we're looking for the closest thing we can find to John Wayne. Clichés abound like kangaroos - courtesy of some spaced out Marlin Perkins, a Reagan contemporary. Clichés like, "itchy trigger finger" and "tall in the saddle" and "riding off or on into the sunset." Clichés like, "Get off of my planet by sundown!" More so than clichés like, "he died with his boots on." Marine tough the man is. Bogart tough the man is. Cagney tough the man is. Hollywood tough the man is. Cheap stick tough. And Bonzo's substantial. The ultimate in synthetic selling: A Madison Avenue masterpiece - a miracle - a cotton-candy politician.Presto! Macho!

"Macho, macho man!"

Put your orders in America. And quick as Kodak your leaders duplicate with the accent being on the nukes - cause all of a sudden we have fallen prey to selective amnesia - remembering what we want to remember and forgetting what we choose to forget. All of a sudden, the man who called for a blood bath on our college campuses is supposed to be Dudley "God-damn" Do-Right?

"You go give them liberals hell Ronnie." That was the mandate. To the new "Captain Bly" on the new ship of fools. It was doubtlessly based on his chameleon performance of the past - as a liberal democrat - as the head of the Studio Actor's Guild. When other celluloid saviors were cringing in terror from McCarthy - Ron stood tall. It goes all the way back from Hollywood to hillbilly. From liberal to libelous, from "Bonzo" to Birch idol. Born again. Civil rights, women's rights, gay rights.it's all wrong. Call in the cavalry to disrupt this perception of freedom gone wild. God damn it. First one wants freedom, then the whole damn world wants freedom.

Nostalgia, that's what we want.the good ol' days. When we gave 'em hell. When the buck stopped somewhere and you could still buy something with it. To a time when movies were in black and white - and so was everything else. Even if we go back to the campaign trail, before six-gun Ron shot off his face and developed hoof-in-mouth. Before the free press went down before full-court press. And were reluctant to review the menu because they knew the only thing available was - Crow.

Lon Chaney, our man of a thousand faces - no match for Ron. Doug Henning does the make-up - special effects from Grecian Formula 16 and Crazy Glue. Transportation furnished by the David Rockefeller of Remote Control Company. Their slogan is, "Why wait for 1984? You can panic now...and avoid the rush."

So much for the good news.

As Wall Street goes, so goes the nation. And here's a look at the closing numbers - racism's up, human rights are down, peace is shaky, war items are hot - the House claims all ties. Jobs are down, money is scarce - and common sense is at an all-time low on heavy trading. Movies were looking better than ever and now no one is looking because, we're starring in a "B" movie. And we would rather had John Wayne. We would rather had John Wayne.

"You don't need to be in no hurry.
You ain't never really got to worry.
And you don't need to check on how you feel.
Just keep repeating that none of this is real.
And if you're sensing, that something's wrong,
Well just remember, that it won't be too long
Before the director cuts the scene. Yeah."

"This ain't really your life,
Ain't really your life,
Ain't really ain't nothing but a movie."

[Refrain repeated about 25 times or more in an apocalyptic crescendo with a military cadence.]

"This ain't really your life,
Ain't really your life,
Ain't really ain't nothing but a movie."





More toli on the B-Movie Theory

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